SEC Whistleblower Awards Have Little Effect on Internal Tips

Most companies have seen no change in volume on hotlines, IIA survey shows.

whistleblowerThe Securities and Exchange Commission’s awards for corporate whistleblowers haven’t had much impact on the tips that companies receive via their internal hotlines, according to a recent survey by the Institute of Internal Auditors.

In August 2011, the SEC started a program, mandated by Dodd-Frank, which awards whistleblowers from 10% to 30% of any financial recovery the agency makes as the result of information the whistleblower provided. Companies fretted that the prospect of an award might cause employees to bypass internal procedures for reporting fraud and other problems and instead head straight to the SEC.

But 84% of the IIA’s respondents say they’ve seen no change in the number of tips or complaints received by their hotlines since the SEC award program took effect in August 2011, with 11% saying volume has increased and 5% citing a decrease.

When the SEC kicked off its awards, “there was a lot of concern that there was going to be some sort of chaos out there because people might be lured by the attractiveness of the reward money from the SEC and that was going to cause people to go around corporate processes to investigate allegations of fraud,” says IIA CEO Richard Chambers. “The survey results would indicate that at least so far, that’s not proving to be true.”

The IIA’s survey of 545 chief audit executives and internal audit directors found 78% say they have little or no concern that employees will bypass internal reporting processes to take their complaints directly to the SEC, with 20% citing “some concern” and just 2% saying they were concerned or highly concerned. The levels were a little higher for executives from Fortune 500 companies, where 41% cited some concern and 1% said they were concerned to highly concerned.

Luis Ramos, CEO of The Network, which provides governance, risk and compliance solutions, including hotlines, agrees that the SEC’s award program isn’t stopping employees from reporting problems internally. “We continue to see very active use of internal hotlines,” he says. “We’re getting a comparable, if not higher, level of reports through our whistleblower lines, and we’re seeing employees prefer that method rather than going outside the existing compliance programs.”

Ramos notes that in response to the SEC awards, companies made a push to ensure that their employees were aware of internal reporting processes. “Many of these companies really redoubled their efforts to communicate about their existing programs and made these programs much more visible to their employees,” he says.

Companies also took steps to educate employees about anti-retaliatory policies concerning whistleblowers, he says, and they tightened up their investigative processes and their methods for reporting back to whistleblowers. In the past, while companies were investigating complaints that had come in, they often didn’t keep the employees who had notified them of the problem informed, Ramos says. “What we heard from employees was that when they didn’t hear back, they thought the organization wasn’t doing anything about the issue and it made them less likely to report in the future.” Companies have started to use hotline follow-up mechanisms to let employees know that they’re taking action, he says.

The IIA survey shows the vast majority of calls to company hotlines don’t involve the financial reporting fraud or insider trading of interest to the SEC. Thirty-eight percent of the complaints that come in on IIA respondents’ hotlines involve personnel management, while 18% have to do with violations of company or professional codes and another 6% allege violations of employment law. Just 8% involve accounting or financial fraud and 9% misuse of assets.

Richard Chambers of the Institute of Internal AuditorsThe IIA’s Chambers says those numbers are similar to what he saw as an inspector general for federal government agencies with hotlines. “In my experience, [hotlines] tended to be used for personnel management and professional conduct code violations more so than for reporting fraud,” he says.

Meanwhile, the SEC reports that it received 3,001 submissions from whistleblowers in its 2012 fiscal year ended in September, the first full year in which awards were available.

While that sounds like a lot of tips, Chambers points out that it’s just six per Fortune 500 company, and far fewer than the tens of thousands of companies operating in the United States. Ramos compares the SEC numbers to the Network’s statistics: The hotlines it operates for 3,500 companies received about 129,000 tips last year, and roughly 23% of those tips involved financial fraud.

 

 

For previous coverage, see SEC Pays First Whistleblower Award, Regulators Challenge Confidential Internal Investigations, and SEC Bounty Hunters.

 

 

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